“A Performance is Really About Digging Into the Footage”: Editor Andrew Hafitz on Beirut
Returning to Sundance long after his first appearances there with Next Stop, Wonderland and Happy Accidents, among others, Brad Anderson’s Beirut is a thriller made from a quarter-century-old script by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity). Jon Hamm stars as a former diplomat, Mason Skiles, who returns to Lebanon a decade after his former posting there, getting involved in a complex hostage situation involving a standoff with his former friend-turned-terrorist Karim (Idir Chender). Editor Andrew Hafitz (The Last Days of Disco, Bully, Keane) explains how his verite background helps inform his approach to cutting and which two directors taught him the most.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Hafitz: Jay Rubin, VP of sales at Technicolor Postworks, recommended me when he was setting up the job. I’d developed a good working relationship with Jay much earlier in my career, when I was assisting Chris Tellefsen and Jay was running the production desk at Sound One. I met director Brad Anderson for a phone meeting during pre-production in Morocco. I’d read Tony Gilroy’s script only the night before, and was pretty stoked by it, so I think my enthusiasm for and insights into the script helped get me hired.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Hafitz: There were many elements to work with, and I was particularly interested in developing the character of Karim. Idir Chender, the actor playing Karim in his early twenties, gave an intense, emotional performance, but it needed to be shaped into a consistent, believable portrayal. Karim has become a terrorist and kidnapper — but he’s a very human character, with an aborted connection to the man who had been his surrogate parent, played by Jon Hamm. This background helps explain his violence and anger. I worked to help the audience see him as more than a villain.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Hafitz: As is so often the case in editing, shaping a performance is really about digging into the footage. You might not yet know exactly what you’re looking for the first time you cut a scene. In subsequent cuts, you learn what to diminish and what to emphasize, what’s expendable and what’s essential.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Hafitz: My earliest experience in a cutting room was interning on a documentary. On my first day, the editor, Juliet Weber, asked me what I thought of a short sequence she was working on. That inclusive attitude — asking the opinion of a newcomer who had little to offer other than a fresh eye – has informed my editing philosophy ever since. Though of course we primarily edit for our directors and producers, ultimately we’re editing for an audience, and I firmly believe that every opinion is valid. Chris Tellefsen was the assistant on that first internship, and from there I in turn worked as Chris’s assistant off and on for about five years. Chris is a wonderful editor with great cinematic instincts, so he’s obviously been a tremendous influence on me.
I’d also mention that the first editing I did was for a largely cinema-vérité documentary. When you’re working with that style of footage, I think it forces you to be more creative editorially, because no shots are planned in advance and you rarely have the “perfect” shot to cut to. I continue to try to use footage in a similarly creative way. Almost every director I’ve worked with has influenced me, but I’d say I’ve learned the most from two in particular: Larry Clark, for his high standard of “real” performance; and Lodge Kerrigan, for his dogged, egoless pursuit of achieving the best film possible.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Hafitz: We used Avid Media Composer. I came up as a film assistant, and although I’ve used other digital platforms, Avid was the system I learned first, and is still my go-to.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Hafitz: The most difficult scene to cut was the exchange of hostages and shootout toward the end of the film, largely because it was shot over the course of three or four days using multiple cameras. Production was rushed, so the slating and script notes were fairly chaotic. Organizing the footage became a big job in itself. But, as they did in every scene, director Brad Anderson and DP Bjorn Charpentier got what we needed to make the sequence work in a creative and visually interesting way.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Hafitz: We had quite a few VFX shots, including a handful of green screens, but they were mainly fairly straightforward and didn’t affect the way we edited the film.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Gilroy: Tony Gilroy’s script is a masterpiece of complexity, full of twists and turns. The intricacies of who knows what and when they learn it, and how Jon Hamm’s character as negotiator influences the actions of both the terrorists and the representatives of the Israeli and American governments, only really became clear to me when I stepped back from the film and watched it with the naïveté of an audience member. I continue to be blown away by the nuance and control of the screenwriting in the midst of a fast-paced, delirious ride.